Oysters have been around a long time, in the vicinity of 500 million years.
Arriving somehow in the Chesapeake, which came into being only 35 million years ago, oysters made themselves at home. In the prehistoric broth, temperatures were moderate, oxygen abundant and food plentiful for the filter-feeders. In synergism over the eons, thriving oysters both kept the Bay clean and made welcoming reef homes for many species seeking shelter and prey. For immobile creatures, oysters got a lot done.
Longtime Baltimore Sun food writer Rob Kasper paints a vivid picture. “Up it came from the bottom of the Bay dripping mud and with all of these creatures on it, and when the captain popped it open, I was a little ascared,” the native Midwesterner says of his first encounter — aboard a skipjack — with a raw oyster.
Reefs grew so enormous that Captain John Smith and the Europeans who followed him in big ships had to navigate around them.
Oysters put Chesapeake Bay on America’s map.
“They’re historic, they’re part of our tradition, wars have been fought over them,” says John Shields, whose family ran a seafood packing plant on Tilghman Island.
In the bivalve’s heyday when as many as 17 million bushels were dredged from the Bay from October to April, refrigerated railway cars chugged them across the country to delight inlanders at least as far west as the Mississippi.
Even in 2016 — with harvests of wild Bay oysters collapsed to a high of 400,000 bushels — Crassostrea virginica remains a talisman of bounty — and good eating.
Shields, Kasper and I saw the vitality of that tradition last weekend at the U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County, conceived by Rotary Club of Lexington Park a half-century ago and still going strong. (Read more in this week’s feature, How to Cook a Prize-Winning Oyster.) You might have shared the spirit last Sunday at Captain Avery Museum’s Oyster Festival.
Oyster festivals, roasts and dinners are favorite autumnal events in Chesapeake Country. On Sunday October 29, you can get into oysters at Calvert Marine Museum’s Aww … Shucks Oyster Social or St. Michael’s Oysterfest at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. On Saturday November 5, Deale Volunteer Fire Department takes its turn, serving all the oysters you can eat — on the half shell, steamed, fried, frittered and stewed.
Despite all the celebration, oysters have been near to becoming just a memory in our Chesapeake, down to one percent of their historic range. Not so many years ago, in this very century, both Maryland and Virginia came close to giving up on Crassostrea virginica and repopulating its home waters with an Asian import. Surely that was the low point. In the last decade, both Chesapeake states have invested heavily and seriously in wild oyster recovery.
Will it work?
Oysters are adaptable survivors. They have “developed a wide variety of genes and proteins to help them deal not only with changes of temperature and differences in the salinity of the water, but also with their exposure to heavy metals … and the various harmful bacteria” to which filter-feeders are constantly exposed, Kristian Sjøgren explained in a 2012 article reporting that their complex genome had been mapped.
Yet they can’t get up and go, so they are tremendously vulnerable to environmental influences, from low oxygen to imported diseases to the heat of such summers as this one.
Thus the rise of aquaculture means an alternate future — for oyster culture, oyster eaters, the oyster economy … even the Bay, as aquacultured oysters are busy filterers even though they do not form reefs.
“With oyster farming, I’m enjoying seeing a resurgence in how we enjoy Chesapeake oysters and how they’re sold, here and across the U.S.,” says Shields, cookbook author, PBS cooking show host and proprietor of Gertrude’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
A little good oyster news is worth savoring. That’s what you’ll find, along with savory oyster recipes, in this issue.
Speaking of Food …
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Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; email@example.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com